Red Herring by Jonothan Cullinane (HarperCollins, 2016), 306 pp., $36.99
Red Herring – the title is a brilliantly punning metaphor for the colour of New Zealand politics around 1951 – is a political mystery thriller. Its central protagonist is Johnny Malloy, an ex-communist and war veteran turned private detective, an appropriately tough fellow who administers well-earned beatings to wife-bashing cops and communist bosses, but in turn cops one from ex-Māori Battalion and ex-crim Sunny Day, the novel’s toughest customer. Of course, being a thriller, there has to be a young stunner of a girl – sprightly Caitlin O’Carolan, an Auckland Star reporter who comes on tough but proves vulnerable when the chips are down.
Enter Fintan Patrick Walsh, New Zealand’s most notorious unionist heavy. In the novel, Walsh is portrayed not only as a murderer by self-confession, but a would-be murderer of the most terrifying kind. In one scene, intrepid O’Carolan is threatened with being thrown into the 2000-degree Auckland destructor furnace unless Malloy spills the beans about his snooping. He talks; Caitlin is saved from incineration. The episode is as nasty as it gets. It’s more like a scene from a James Bond novel than a realistic scene from tough unionist Walsh’s life, thuggish though he might have been.
According to biographer Graeme Hunt, Walsh never committed any murders or near murders, though he did quite a lot of bashing. The question that must be asked is whether Cullinane’s brutal exaggeration is justified in the name of what I have dubbed ‘historical fabulation’ – the conscious revision or alteration of history in the name of fiction more dramatic than real life. My reaction is ambiguous. While Walsh was known to administer beatings to his perceived enemies, does this make him a murderer? Given his record of known violence and ruthlessness, it is possible. However, there was never any conviction, and no proof. It’s a bit of a stretch to make him quite this nasty, though undoubtedly, the destructor event is the most gripping scene in a novel that contains a considerable amount of violence, and is an echo of an actual event in which Walsh was to dispose of the body of a much beaten up man – but the body woke up. So there you go – grievous bodily harm that fell short of homicide.
Apart from violence, and being a near murderer (let us say), Walsh stoops to the dirty tactic of setting up Furst, an ex-policeman turned insurance investigator from San Francisco, with an underage girl, one he (Walsh) may already have taken sexual advantage of. He is also portrayed as a fat bribe taker. Will the nice guy Walsh please stand up? He prefers to sit.
Walsh went through enough ideological and political changes to make a carousel seem like a stationary object. He was raised a Catholic then rejected Catholicism; he founded the New Zealand Communist party in 1920 and a few years later rejected Communism; he was a unionist who sided with the government over the 1951 strike, and was regarded as a traitor by the Watersiders Workers’ Union; he was a working-class hero who was hand in glove with prime ministers like Peter Fraser (more Fraser than Holland, though Fraser doesn’t feature in Red Herring). Walsh was connected (at least fictionally) to every level of society, from Auckland’s ultra-exclusive Northern Club to Prime Minister Sid Holland (who makes a guest appearance in his underwear while shining his shoes) to thugs like Sunny Day. Even the PM has to eat the breakfast fare of the day – sugared Weetbix, damp toast, orange cordial. Not to mention dried out sausage rolls and watery tomatoes. Come in New Zealand lamb, your time starts now.
Then there is Frank O’Flynn aka O’Phelan, a sometime IRA bomber. He is a dark dopplegänger to Walsh who, in like manner, changed his name from Tuohy to Walsh. O’Flynn is constantly referred to, and just as the reader begins to suspect he will forever remain a character spoken about (being supposedly deceased), he makes an appearance about two thirds of the way through the narrative. He doesn’t last long. Under Walsh’s orders, Sunny Day shoots him twice at point-blank range. Shades of Mickey Spillane. He always seemed a bit superfluous anyway. To confuse the fictional mix, there was a real-life Frank O’Flynn, who was a Labour politician and minister of defence. The redoubtable Jock Barnes, head of the striking Watersiders’ Union, spouts an obituary for O’Flynn – a speech that hardly does justice to Barnes’s comradely fortitude and intelligence.
Nearly all of the characters (Day an exception) are Irish – surely a truthful reflection of the ethnicity of many left-wing unionists plus IRA protagonists during these times. Cullinane – the name must be Irish – and indeed, my own father, Irish as they come, had dark IRA connections and could, under the influence of liquor, be violent. So it goes.
The novel has a rip-roaring pace and much snappy dialogue which, together with two- to three-page chapters, encourages a speed read. This is a rollercoaster of a book without the coaster bit. Toward the end of the book the chapters become even shorter, some no more than half a page. Kurt Vonnegut, please take a bow. Yet every so often the hectic pace slows, and a character (often Walsh), indulges in some extended introspection. This adds depth to the at times shallow, though always supersonic, dialogue.
Red Herring has many strengths. One of them is technical exposition. The text is never more focused when Cullinane settles in to telling us all about how to plant gelignite, Sunny Day’s specialty. Another device Cullinane does well is a form of the jump cut – a term that comes from radio and film. At the end of Chapter 36, Day tells Malloy that they are going for a ride. Chapter 37 opens with an account of the arrival of the Black Death in Sydney in 1900. Connection? The building of Auckland’s destructor furnace to rid the city of the rubbish that encouraged rats and the potential spread of the Black Death, aka plague. This leads to O’Carolan’s ordeal. A masterful transition, neo-cinematic in technique. While the Waterfront Strike of 1951 is central to the book, apart from the opening passages it is not prominently foregrounded. This is a novel that takes us behind the scenes, albeit with the inventive artifice of fiction.
Cullinane knows inner Auckland well, and one of the delights for the reviewer was the pleasurable shock of recognition of well-known streets, clubs and hangouts. At the time Avondale was the outermost suburb and the city much more compact. This inner city geography gives the novel a sense of immediacy and cohesion. The streets remain with us, only their nuance has altered. Today’s crime, which seems largely focused on dairy robberies and houses turned into illegal P labs, is more centred in outlying suburbs that did not exist in 1951.
There some puzzling aspects. Here’s a passage from page 59:
For an instant Malloy felt as if there was no one else in the room. ‘E stato un colpo di fulmine,’ as the rat Fabrizio said about Michael when the latter saw Apollonia for the first time. Struck by a lightning bolt.
What does this extract mean? I have absolutely no idea. Nor do I know why several prominent writers – Stuart Hoar, Roger Hall, John Newton – are instanced as minor characters. They are not specific to the period. Possibly, Cullinane can clue me in next time we eat sugared Weetbix and damp toast.
To summarise, Red Herring is both a mystery thriller saturated with violence, and a reflection on one of the stormiest times in our history; it is sophisticated and knowing, yet at times naïve, but always vivid, direct and electrifyingly paced. This is a hard-boiled novel, and the egg has been well and truly cooked – a step up from damp toast.
MICHAEL MORRISSEY has been active as a novelist, short-story writer, essayist, feature and book reviewer. He has published 22 books. His 23rd, Poems from Hotel Middlemore, is forthcoming from Cold Hub Press.